The Anti-Shariah Movement and Jewish Law

The Anti-Shariah Movement and Jewish Law .

by Jacob Bender


A front-page article in The New York Times on July 31, 2011, by reporter Andrea Elliott, described some of the personalities involved in the nation-wide campaign against what they call “the danger of Islamic law.”

One of these personalities is David Yerushalmi, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, who the article describes as exercising “a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.” Joining forces with right-wing think-tanks, Yerushalmi has “written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits…and drafted the legislation” that aims to cast Shariah as the gravest contemporary threat to American freedom. A Web site of Yerushalmi’s organization goes so far as to propose a sentence of 20 years for anyone found guilty of observing Islamic law.

As an American Jew, I was immediately interested in Yerushalmi’s involvement in the campaign against Shariah. A documentary filmmaker by training and profession, I have spent the last several years directing Out of Cordoba, a film about the two greatest thinkers to emerge from medieval Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) the Muslim, and his Jewish counterpart, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimun (Moses Maimonides). These two geniuses, both born in the Andalucian city of Cordoba, were philosophers committed to balancing the ancient Greek rationalism of Aristotle with the revealed truths they found in the Qur’an and in the Torah, as well as serving as court physicians to their local rulers in Spain and in Egypt, respectively.

Averroes and Maimonides were also judges of Shariah and Halakhah (Jewish religious law), believing that religious law was the foundation of God’s will on earth, and the basis of just and rational societies, guiding not only religious practices and beliefs of an observant Muslim or a Jew, but also the numerous day-to-day aspects of their lives.

What is striking about Maimonides — generally considered to have had the most influence of any individual on the Jewish religion over the last millennium — is the profound influence of Muslim thinkers upon his thought. Ironically, Yerushalmi seems totally ignorant of this Islamic influence upon his own religious traditions. In Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, his great code of Halakhah, as well as in the Guide for the Perplexed, his philosophical masterpiece, Maimonides cites numerous Muslim writers, including Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Farabi (872-951), and Ibn Hazm (994-1064). Late in his life, while serving as the court physician to Saladin in Egypt, we find Maimonides reading the numerous commentaries on the works of Aristotle written by Averroes. Maimonides lived all his life in the Muslim lands of Spain, Morocco, and Egypt, and was steaped in the latest intellectual trends of his day.

Except for the Mishneh Torah, all of Maimonides’ books, responsa, and correspondence were written in Arabic. That over three-quarters of the world’s Jews once lived in the dar-al-Islam (Muslim lands), and that Arabic was once also the language of Jewish people, are historical facts of little use to the Ashkenazic-centric worldview of people like Yerushalmi, ignorant as they are of the heritage of those Jewish communities beyond the confines of Eastern and Central Europe, known to scholars and lay-persons alike as Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. It is important to note that Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed was often banned in many of the yeshivot (rabbinical schools) of Eastern Europe, for its espousal of the pagan Aristotle.

We should not be surprised at all that Yerushalmi, a practicing attorney, has no academic training in Islamic jurisprudence, nor in Jewish history, and that among his legal clients is Pamela Geller, another star of the bigoted Islamophobic circus that also includes Robert Spencer, Rev. Franklin Graham, and Daniel Pipes. (Full disclosure: A Web site associated with the anti-Shariah movement, http://www.SheikYerMami.com accus,ed me of being a long-time agent of Saudi Arabia because part of the funding for my film Out of Cordoba was provided by the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, together with the governments of the United States and Spain. Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s foundation has also made generous donations to such dangerous and subversive institutions as Harvard University and the Jesuit Georgetown University, as well as to the Louvre Museum in Paris.)

What should be abundantly clear from all of this is that the anti-Shariah movement has no interest in either history or facts. On the former, any honest reading of the history of Western Civilization will acknowledge the vast influence of Muslim thinkers across a wide range of human disciples, be it in philosophy, theology, architecture, grammar, poetics, mathematics, medicine, or astronomy. And regarding the current debate over Shariah, the simple fact is that this a red herring if there ever was one, for there is no vast Muslim conspiracy to advance the “Shariahization” of the United States that anyone can truly identify.

There is, however, a growing movement by Islamophobic bigots, Yerushalmi included, who seek to demonize Islam and deny Muslim Americans their constitutionally protected freedom of religion. This is the real contemporary threat to American freedom. The reason I undertook to produce Out of Cordoba was to shine a light on the long centuries of cross-fertilization by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. This collaboration can still inspire us today to overcome the forces of ignorance and bigotry that have arisen again — as they did in earlier episodes in American history against Native Americans and African Americans, against Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants, and against Catholics and Jews — and strive towards a multicultural and multi-faith America, ever expanding the frontiers of tolerance and inclusion.

Jacob Bender is the director of the award-winning documentary Out of Cordoba. To watch the trailer of the film, click here. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  Originally published at Aslan Media and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.

Photo Credit: David Shankbone


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